TDR Global profile: Ghana’s heroine of health

Dr Margaret Gyapong, Ghana

Margaret Gyapong’s lifelong passion for the sociocultural aspects of health arose from a single experience: observing that many people defecated on Accra’s beaches and wondering why. She was at the time a recent university graduate doing field work for a study on women’s health during pregnancy as part of her national service.

Margaret Gyapong
Margaret Gyapong

“I decided to ask why they did this,” says Gyapong, a native of Accra. “They explained that very few people in their coastal community had toilets. There were public toilets available, but people had to pay each time they used them. The public toilets were not connected to a proper sanitation system – the contents were simply emptied into the sea periodically by a waste management truck. So many people decided there was little point to paying to have their waste emptied into the sea when they could defecate on the beach and have it washed away into the same water.

“From then on, I became very interested in the reasons why community members acted in particular ways in their everyday lives and how this affected public health,” Gyapong says. She went on, with TDR’s support, to complete a Master’s degree in medical anthropology at Brunel University of West London in 1995, and then a PhD in cultural epidemiology at the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute.

For her Master’s, she explored community beliefs about lymphatic filariasis in northern Ghana. For her PhD, she investigated similar issues in southern Ghana and worked with other scientists to assess the implications of cultural beliefs and practices for controlling the disease. Both research projects were influential, ensuring active involvement of community members in mass drug administration and contributed to shaping the establishment of Ghana’s national filariasis programme.

Accomplishments lead to major award

Gyapong’s work led her appointment as director of the Dodowa Health Research Centre for the Ghana Health Service, where she oversaw the overall running of the research centre, conducting research to meet Ghana’s policy and programme needs and building capacity in young scientists to conduct research relevant to the Ghana Health Service. She was also responsible for setting up and running a demographic surveillance system in two districts in Ghana.

Dodowa is currently a member of the INDEPTH Network, a global network of health and demographic surveillance systems that seeks to provide a more complete picture of the health status of communities. The centre is known and respected around the world as a first-class centre for implementation research, and Gyapong is widely viewed as the architect of the centre’s standing.

This work was recognized earlier this year with the Heroine of Health Award, conferred by GE Healthcare and Women in Global Health, a movement that strives for greater gender equality in global health leadership. She received the award in a ceremony at the World Health Assembly in Geneva.

Efforts on a neglected disease in women

Gyapong is currently director of the Centre for Health Policy and Implementation Research of the University of Health and Allied Sciences in Ho, Ghana, and a lead social scientist for COUNTDOWN (Calling time on Neglected Tropical Diseases). This consortium uses implementation research to address implementation gaps in the control of neglected tropical diseases in Cameroon, Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria.

Her work has leapt across the artificial boundaries between neglected infectious disease and reproductive health research efforts. “I have a strong interest in female genital schistosomiasis. Many women suffer silently from the consequences of this disease, which presents as infertility, miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy and other gynaecological conditions. Through our work on COUNTDOWN, I am hoping we can put this condition on the maternal health agenda, so that it will receive needed attention,” she says.

Key support from TDR

Gyapong stresses that TDR’s support has gone way beyond the scholarship she received for her degrees. “One thing I have noticed with TDR is that once they build capacity in an individual, they maintain the links for as long as it takes,” she says. “Since I received the grants for my graduate work, I have served and continue to serve as temporary advisor, consultant, chair and co-chair on several committees in TDR. Through this effort, I have been exposed to many areas of research and engaged with many scientists in my field and other areas of public health.”

TDR has also provided support, throughout Gyapong’s career, for research and publishing. “TDR helped me publish my first document, Gender Agenda in the control of Neglected Tropical Diseases: A review of current evidence, as well as the Implementation Research Toolkit and Lessons Learned in Home Management of Malaria, which was on implementation research in 4 African countries,” she says.

More recently, she was invited to TDR’s annual Joint Coordinating Board to present the work she has been involved in to increase Ghana’s capacity to take on new health innovations. This is part of the Access and Delivery Partnership that is coordinated through the United Nations Development Programme with TDR and PATH.

Commitment to research and teaching

TDR also cultivated Gyapong’s commitment to implementation research. She has influenced health policy in Ghana through a number of studies and publications, such as on the sociocultural aspects of lymphatic filariasis, home-based use of antimalarial drugs and antibiotics that informed the community case management strategy in Ghana, and studies on community-based health insurance that helped shape the Ghana national health insurance scheme.

Gyapong has worked tirelessly to help build a cadre of researchers devoted to neglected infectious diseases. Currently she serves as part-time faculty at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, Brunel University and the University of Ghana. At the University of Copenhagen, she served as a PhD supervisor and was Programme Coordinator for the Sustainable Sanitation for Africa project, which builds capacity for Master’s and PhD students. She has also previously served as external examiner at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa and at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

Margaret Gyapong is a member of TDR Global, a platform for research networking and has offered to be a mentor.
Anyone who has worked with TDR can become a member of TDR Global. This provides further exposure of your work, and the opportunity to find research collaborations and either be a mentor or ask for a mentor. For further information, email: tdrglobal@who.int.


For more information, contact Margaret Gyapong